There has been an age old dispute about the meaning of rap flow. What is flow and how come every single rapper has a different one? This article aims to answer this question as well as give you techniques to improve yours and become a better rapper.
The complete in-depth rap guide, with lessons and exercises:
The Meaning of Rap Flow
Flow is the combination of two elements, that determine the overall sound of a rapper. The two elements being rhyme schemes and intonation techniques.
This is flow. So, if you want to determine someones flow, you just pay attention to his rhyme schemes and intonation techniques.
We have a whole section on rhyme scheme in our Rapping Manual dedicated to learning and mastering different kinds of rhyme schemes and all there is to it, is choosing:
- what rhyme words will you use
- how many of them will you have
- where will you put them.
This is the essence of a rhyme scheme.
Intonation is the rise and fall of the voice. It’s the fluctuations of the voice. For example, you know that the sentence “I can’t wait to see you.” can have 5 different meanings, depending on the intonation used. Therefore, intonation derives from feeling and emotion.
Each rapper has a different(sometimes similar) intonations and this is because each of them has a different attitude and demeanor. Each rapper is carrying himself in a different way. Therefore, the intonation of their bars is different.
Think of intonation as the spirit of the rhyme scheme. A rhyme scheme without intonation is lifeless and boring, but once you give it an intonation pattern, you give it life.
There are Always New Frontiers to be Discovered
There is no set number or limit of rap flows. There are numerous different combinations that can be employed for something unique and better to be created.
Remember that if two rappers write the same rhyme scheme, but use different intonation techniques, then they will sound totally different from each other. Don’t think that you’re too late, because a true maverick only builds on what was already built.
Here are the 4 simple rules to having a great rap flow:
Rule 1. Always Place a Vowel on Each Beat
The idea is that you should know how to count out the four beats of a bar. Once you’re able to do this, you’ll be able to write your lyrics in a way, which will correspond to the actual length of the pattern.
I’ll assume that you know how to count music.
You have to understand that in order for your text to sound melodic and really go with the instrumental, you have to place vowels on each of the four beats. You can use any combination of vowels, that’s not an issue. A great way to practice this technique is to:
1. Find an instrumental
2. Recognize the 4 beats of each bar
3. Choose on which beat which vowel will you say
-For example, you can start with saying “O” on all 4 beats, or “O” on the 1st and 2nd beat and “E” on the 3rd and 4th beat.
4. Play the instrumental and start saying those vowels at the exact same time each beat plays.
-You can invent the words you say, they don’t matter. All you have to focus on is saying the exact vowels at the correct time.
This will improve your timing and will give you a stable foundation of how to flow.
The important thing to grasp is that placing your vowels on the beats is the first level of syncopation. Ever heard of syncopation? It’s a technique used in poetry. Learn more about it from this video. The techniques are being discussed from the 07:00 mark.
If you use this technique, you will:
- Always be on Beat
- Sound Clear and Easy to Understand
- Have a Melodic Flow-Pleasant to Listen to
However, I have to agree with some of you, that this rule can be ignored at times.
It can be ignored, but by those of you who’ve been rapping for a while and know how to flow. Sometimes, you’d want to experiment, flow differently and use some creativity to change it up a bit.
Then yes-rules restrict creativity, so go for it. On the other hand, people who’re still trying to find their way around the basics of rapping, never forget this rule and make sure you compose your lyrics based on it.
Rule 2-Dynamic Bar Length
The first-time listener cares whether you sound good or not
If you sound good, he’ll keep on listening up to the point where you mess up. If you don’t mess up, he might actually like the song and play it back.
The second time, he’ll focus on the flow and just hear the words. If he really likes your flow, he’ll play it one more time, but this time he’ll focus a bit more on the lyrics.
Let’s get to the second rule and namely, the dynamic bars length.
This rule is very simple to understand. Writing your bars in different lengths, gives you the ability to shape your flow.
It’s the first sign of exerting conscious control, over how your lyrics actually sound, by placing breath breaks after each ending rhyme word. This is what I mean:
What you have here is one full bar, ending with a rhyme word from type 1, followed by a breath break. Then you have two blocks on the second bar, two rhyme words, both followed by breath breaks.
So, for the sake of learning, always follow your ending rhyme word with a breath break. If you’re a novice, this will help you structure your flow better and understand the basics of rapping the right way. You will evolve out of this rule, once you become more skillful.
Different lengths sound different
There is no right approach, it’s all about experimentation. I’m sure that most of you know this, but you have to refresh your memory from time to time. Even if you think you’re on an advanced level right now, taking it back to the basics is vital at times.
For example, a great way to practice writing dynamic bars is to write quatrains, experimenting with different lengths. It might look something like:
1st Quatrain will be:
2nd Quatrain will be:
Then you fill it with words. Record it and evaluate your sound. If you don’t like any combination of lengths, you get back and change it, then record again. Perfection never comes on day one. This rule has many benefits, such as:
- Helps you consciously shape your rap flow
- Basic, yet Powerful
- First sign of Rhyme Schemes
- Develops Structure for your Lyrics
How to do it?
- Always place a breath break, after your End Rhyme Word
- Experiment with different combinations of lengths, using the Practice Quatrains
- Record your Combinations, Listen and Edit what you Don’t like
- Leave the Best Combinations and Start Using them For other Songs
Rule 3. Create the Skeleton First, Then Fill in the Lyrics
This is a tested and proven method for producing lyrics that are melodic and pleasant to listen to, due to their clear underlying rhyme structure. Among the most popular rappers that are utilizing this method of writing are Snoop Dogg, DMX and Eminem. They all create the skeleton first and then fill in the lyrics. Let’s delve deeper into it.
You have to understand that words are sounds and the way you use the rhyme words in your bar determines the way your flow goes. The actual flow of your rapping is the melody made by the succession of the words within that bar, so by consciously placing sounds on certain places, you get to modulate the flow.
The Steps to Consciously Create Your Flow
The first thing you need to do is make the skeleton of rhyme schemes. Do the structure for one verse and then fill it up with lyrics, which match the skeleton’s structure. This way, you’ll know how your flow will sound before you actually fill in the words.
This means that you can divide it into quatrains-4 quatrains. So you create a rhyme scheme for the first quatrain, then fill it with words. Then create a rhyme scheme for the second quatrain, then fill it with words and so on.
This will give you great freedom, as you can now choose how you can flow. You can choose the intensity of the melody and the frequency of rhymes.
A lot of people write lyrics with the other approach. They just sit down, start from bar one and make up the flow as they go. This is an alternative of course and by all means, if you feel most comfortable with this approach, use it.
Creating the skeleton first is a method, worth trying. The benefits are enormous and some of you might find that it allows you to be more creative and expressive.
Rule 4. Transition Between Quatrains Gracefully
If you’ve paid full attention to various instrumentals, you have most likely realized that quatrains are quite independent from each other. Of course, they share all the instruments and on certain instrumentals, the melodies are progressing as well, however as a whole, they contain the essence of the composition.
Quatrains are Independent
Knowing this, you can use it to your advantage.
If you have a 16 bar verse on an instrumental and you’ve noticed that there is no/minor difference between each quatrain, you can transition anyway you want.
If on the other hand, there are noticeable differences, it’s best to mirror your lyrics and flow to the quatrain change. So if the second quatrain introduces an aggressive instrument, you’ll find that adding an aggressive element to your flow and lyrics tends to marry your words to the beat.
When it comes to the actual technicalities of transitions, there are tonnes of ways.
For example, Nas and Big Pun love having their last bar of the first quatrain, spill over to the second quatrain. Illustrated, it looks like:
Another transition is the rhythmic one.
Here, you can introduce a certain flow on the last bar of the first quatrain and then continue using it on the second quatrain. For example, you’re rapping with a regular speed and suddenly you start rapping fast on bar 4. Then the new quatrain starts and you keep using that fast flow.
Of course, the simplest way to transition is the lyrical one.
Here, all you do is continue your argument. If it’s done in an understandable flow, people will pay attention to the content and the transition will seem seamless. For example:
4th bar of quatrain 1: And then I told her she should come
1st bar of quatrain 2: She heard me then she looked our son
Those are a few ways to transition differently
Know that if you start a new rhyme scheme or introduce a new flow at the start of a new quatrain, it works as well.
There are those of you that prefer a more seamless flow, that is more guided by instinct rather than control.
Here are some tips on how to develop the instinctive rap flow and become excellent at it:
In rapping, one of the most important things is obviously the way you write your lyrics and how they correlate to the beat and your flow.
The Standard Choice
The way many rappers do this is by counting the 4 beats in a bar, and then placing the rhymes either on one of the 4 beats (usually the 4th one) or perhaps somewhere on the off-beat. Knowing how counting music works is definitely essential, however, it can also be limiting.
Things To Remember
Arguably the most important thing for a rapper to learn is how to be on time with the beat, which means that the tempo of his flow matches the tempo of the beat. This is a matter of having a feel for the rhythm and is something that is developed over time.
Scatting and being able to mimic all the sounds of the instrumental is to me the best guide to develop that feeling, while many rappers give more importance to where the rhymes fall on the beat: they usually go for a rhyme on the snare.
How Can This Be Bad?
This can be bad because a lot of people think that unless you have a rhyme on the snare or a certain beat of the bar that you cannot be on time, or that something is not right.
This is very wrong, which can be proven by the fact that if you have the feel you can ride the beat even when reading a text that has no rhymes in it, like a book page for example. And also, in freestyle, nobody has the mental space to think of the next line while also keeping track of which beat of the bar is where.
When you write your rhymes simply by feeling where they should fall, which is not to say that structure is dismissed, you have more freedom to convey your ideas. Meaning, you don’t have to cut words and maybe degrade the quality of your line just because you want a rhyme at the 4th beat. You can say what you want to say, and if it feels right when you rap it, you’re good to go.
Forget About Other Rappers
Stop listening to other rappers for a while and just write like YOU think is right.
It might feel stupid and not working at first, but you’ll eventually figure out the imperfections and amend them. If you stay in your lane, staying true to your own flow, overtime it will blossom into something unheard of.
Here are the 5 ways you could freshen up your flow:
1. Change the Instrumentals
There is a possibility that your rapping skills get stagnant, because you’ve gotten used to recording only on one type of beat. Maybe its the angry instrumental or the club type beat, it doesn’t matter. You have to constantly challenge and develop your flow. When you change the type of the instrumental, you would have to adapt the structure of your flow according to the beat rate. You will see, something new will come out of this.
2. Borrow the techniques from the greats
It’s not a crime to analyze and emulate your favorite rapper, as long as you don’t copy his style completely. Play your favorite song, listen closely to his lyrics. Is there a couplet that you’re particularly amazed with? Well, write it down and analyze it. See where is he putting the rhymes and how he says it. Now try doing the same technique but with your words. Put a little twist in it and there you go, you have a brand new flow pattern. A great way to put this into practice is by following these steps:
1. Play a rap song of your choosing and go over the lyrics, while listening.
2. Memorize the lyrics to the point, where you can perform them without having to read.
3. Now rap along with the performing rapper, attempting to mirror his actual intonation.
4. Once you feel confident enough, find the instrumental of the song.
5. Record yourself rapping to the beat, mimicking the intonation of the original performing rapper.
6. Export the file and compare your delivery with the original.
7. Find your deficiencies and attempt it again, until perfection.
Why should I use it?
This method is extremely effective, because it gives you hard proof. It helps you in comparing your delivery to an established artists, which is also a great way to evaluate your skill level and position.
It also helps you gather invaluable insight into his/her flow technique, providing you with a chance to incorporate some of his intonation techniques.
This is for the people who are just starting out. The truth is that you first need to get a feel of the rap field. You need to observe the rules and the overall dynamic of rapping. Once you gain sufficient general knowledge, then you can branch out and create your own sound.
3. Base your flow patterns on emotion
I have no idea how each and every one of you is writing his lyrics, but I can tell you this. Everybody has a style of writing. Its just their flavor, what sounds good to them. Now try and flip this. Construct your flow with the sole purpose of expressing an emotion. The lyrics don’t matter. You could be saying: I am a pink bunny and I love flowers. But can you construct it in a way, which expresses anger? You might think it’s funny in the beginning, but being able to put emotion on whatever you want is a vital skill.
4. Collaborate with a fellow rapper
This is a very good way of learning new stuff. It may be someone from your street or your town. Maybe its someone you met online. Collaborating with other up and coming artists can bring you only benefits. Not only you will mix up your audiences, but you are likely to learn some new technique he uses, or some trick he employs when recording and so on. Don’t be selfish. Be open to collaborations.
5. Couplet Exercise
This is something I made up myself. All you do is construct one couplet. The number of rhyme words is not important. Then, you have to think of as many ways to flow differently as you can, which means you have to find ways to say the same thing in a different way.For example:
I’m sitting on a chair as I’m writing this
I’ll be rapping to the end man I found my bliss
Then you can change it by adding a different intonation on “this”, or increase the speed at “sitting on a chair” etc.
Whatever you can think of. Just that couplet, you are not making a song. Trying to think of all the different ways to say one thing will spark up your creativity. You can be sure that 80% of the time you will think of some fucked up flow patterns but there is a good chance that something good comes out of it. Something which you can use later.
Finally, Here are the Advanced Techniques You Can Use to Take Your Flow to Another Level
Changing the pronunciation of words is unique, cool and different.
It shows that you’re confident enough to play around with the language that you’re using. It’s another reason why people might remember your record.
A clear example of this can be drawn from one of Schoolboy Q’s songs “What they Want”. The example can be heard at the 1.49 mark, where the rappers says “Po-Lice” instead of “Police”.
Intonation is a great medium for emotions and you can use this to your advantage.
Don’t let your voice become stagnant. Instead, use it as an instrument, constantly playing around with the intonation of your lyrics. This way, you’re pumping feeling and soul into your lyrics. They become alive and people tend to remember them a lot better then lyrics, performed in a dry and monotone way.
We can use the same song as the example. This time, check out Schoolboy Q’s verses. Right from the start, you can sense how he plays around with the intonation of his bars, alternating between a calm and an angry delivery.
Invent Different Names for Words
This is a tried and proven strategy.
1. Think of a word that’s commonly used.
2. Think of giving it your own name.
3. Incorporate your uniquely called word into your lyrics.
1. Think of the word “IPhone”
2. Maybe you can call it something along the lines of “The Brain Sucker”
An example of this, can be seen all over the hip hop stage, but one of the most prominent ones is something Nas said. He named “money” – “dead presidents”. This phrase is remembered to this day.
Ride the Beat
This is a technique, which you can add to your flow right now. Maybe you can do a whole song based on this, or just a segment. Nevertheless, it’s something worth knowing.
What is it?
The technique is called “riding the beat” and what it means is that you pick one instrument, playing in the melody and you base your flow structure on it. Your voice fluctuating at the same time the instrument is. Check out this song as an example and read on to learn how to actually do it.
In this song, they chose to ride the beat and based their flow on the main element, which is the deep cello sounding tune. Riding the beat is sometimes used as the chorus structure. This is an example of “riding the beat” for the chorus.
Pay attention to the chorus and how the flow is based on those electro techno sounds. That’s riding the beat.
Why would you want to do it?
Riding the beat is just another weapon in your arsenal. Just another way you could freshen up your flow and impress your audience. It’s never good to get stuck on one technique, so switching from one to the other is a good way to gain experience and understanding of how rap is done.
How do you do it?
1. Choose the instrument you’ll base your flow on.
2. Scat rap over the instrument, so you can hear how your layer would sound after you construct it.
3. Write down the flow in the quatrain format on paper, so you know how it looks.
4. Figure out your content and fill in the skeleton.
5. Perform what you’ve written a few times, with the melody playing, so you can synchronize the tonality of your voice with the tonality of the instrument.
6. You’re done. You can now ride the beat.
There is this very cool flow technique that I like to call the Tonal Spike. It is done by spiking up your voice at certain words and then after a regular flow for a bit you bring back the spike on some rhyming word(s) down the line.
The technique is best explained through examples and a great one would be Lupe Fiasco’s verse on the song Don’t Stop also featuring Kanye and Pharrell. In the verse, Lupe is using a specific intonation on the words that rhyme with “lie” and that’s a tonal spike that stands out and reoccurs throughout the verse:
Carrera, raised in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle era
Water-bearer tell the truth, I dare ya
Ya lie, so eat this whole bottle of these jalapeño peppers
For terror made in America, too live
Fuck the property or give me my props properly
High off life this high technology, DeVry
I rep Muhammad Ali more like rapology
My policy’s not to be dishonestly deprived
So gimme that, gimme that, keep God
Where my city at, I’m like steak and fries but never die
They wanna Ghostface, wanna be me
But they will post-haste follow me into the after-life
That means you going right after I’ve
But I’m the hero sort of like Jack Sparrow
So some way, some how, I have survived
Ha ha, surprised…
As you can notice from the example, Lupe has a more prolonged and intensified pronunciation of the words that rhyme with “lie” which makes them stand out in contrast to the regular flow/delivery in between, but what’s cool is that the spike is reoccurring and it comes back as the verse goes on. The minimum that a vocal spike needs to occur is twice so that the intonation is rhymed. However, there are some examples where it is done just once such as Andre 3000’s verse on B.O.B. when he says the word “hot”:
Too high to jump in jail
Too low to dig, I might just touch hell – HOT!
What’s awesome about vocal spikes is that they come out of nowhere and take the listener by surprise, and again the fact that they stand out. They also make for a great implementation of mathematics in your flow/delivery. Also, very few rappers use them so this can make you come off as more special in the ears of your listeners.
A good way to practice this is through scatting, or better yet a mix of words and scatting. What you can do is take simple rhyming words such as:
-funny, money, honey, sunny
These words would make for the tonal spikes and for the regular flow in between you use scatting. I will provide some examples below, some including beats and some acapella and you can do the practice yourselves. Feel free to experiment with the sound of the spikes as well as the flow in between:
Cool, so to further explain it just for sure here’s another example by Eminem from his verse on 50 Cent’s Gatman & Robin.
The tonal spike is done with the “Batman sounds” in the words that/bat/pact/back:
We’re walking away from a beef in which clearly you started
I said we’re walking away, did you hear me?
You oughta be thankful that we ain’t beefin
We’ll disagree and just leave it at (that!)
Cause if me and 50 and G-Unit hop back in that (bat!) mobile
It ain’t gonna be no more rap it’s gonna be, brrat
Retaliation, it’ll be like them Muslim Shiia, attacks
Somewhere along the line it’s like me and 50 made a (pact!)
He’s got my back, I got his back (back!)
It’s almost like we’re kinda like Siamese twins …
Bonus example from Eyedea, pay attention how the words Exposing – Chose it – Disposing are tonal spikes in contrast to the flow in between (6:06 mark)
For more in-depth premium information on flow, feel free to check out our complete rapping guide.